Writing screenplays

“Weird Al” Yankovic, who co-wrote the movie UHF, joked once about having one or two screenplays collecting dust in his desk, saying that nobody would believe he lived in Southern California if he didn’t have at least one unproduced script in his office.

Along that vein, I have thought that nobody would believe I work on fiction if I didn’t have at least one screenplay or teleplay, unpublished, waiting to see the light of day.

So, at the suggestion of someone, I am setting about to take an unpublished short story of mine and working on a script for it to see how that turns out.

I’m taking the shotgun appoach: read a few scripts, focusing on their style and format and trying to use those to come up with mine.

Should be lots of fun. It’s a challenge too, because if it works, who knows where it could go…these days it’s a very rare occasion that I see a suspense movie that I really like. In the past few years, I’ve liked Dead Silence, Hard Candy, the remake of When A Stranger Calls, 1408 and the Australian thriller Wolf Creek.

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Writer’s Digest Your Story 20: My Under-750-Word version

No, it didn’t make the final cut, but I thought I’d share it with you.

I hope this story will also stir some debate. Some think it’s vehemently wrong to use profanity in fiction. I am of the camp that believes it depends on the audience: if a Christian one, then no. If a general, secularized one, then do so but in a way that’s not caricaturized…

Journalism is Dead

By Richard Zowie

Kevin Ballard loved his job.

For the past six months he’d worked as a reporter for the Los Patos Star, a weekly publication in Los Patos, Texas (a South Texas town of about 15,000). Kevin carried two beats: the local schools and their sporting activities. That meant school board meetings, talking to teachers, students and coaches and digging to learn happens behind the scenes. Armed with his digital audio recorder, pens, notebook and modest digital camera (the paper was too small to afford the thousands of dollars needed to buy a professional-grade camera), Kevin did his best to write 10 or so stories a week. Sometimes he even wrote a humor column.

At first, he was nervous. Kevin wasn’t from Los Patos, and it was one of those Texas towns where many families dated back to before Texas’ independence from Mexico in 1836. It could take years, if ever, for an outsider to gain trust and respect. Especially someone like Kevin, who had subtly tried to shake his Michigan accent by changing his pronuncation of vowels, going from saying byalance to balance. When he wrote, he made sure he did so fairly and accurately. He always got both sides of the story, such as when he quoted a medical insurance company spokesperson to explain why their policy would not cover a local single mother’s kidney transplant.

At 3 p.m., he returned back to the Star office after having spent much of the day at the high school. A math teacher was resigning to open his own engineering firm, the football team’s star quarterback was about to break the town’s heart by signing a letter of intent with the University of Oklahoma (instead of Texas or Texas A&M) and a trusted source told Kevin the high school was planning to start teaching Mandarin Chinese. Many parents, especially those who hate the “Made in China” products, will not be happy, they warned him.

He sat, ready to scribe his notes and then call it a day when Joseph, the editor, called him into his office.

Kevin sat in the editor’s office and noticed Joseph closed the door, something he didn’t do unless something was wrong.

Joseph sighed deeply and sat in his chair. Kevin could never tell what color Joe’s eyes were because Joe always had a strange habit of never making eye contact. He especially seemed evasive now, glancing at his desk, at the ceiling and at Kevin’s breast pocket. Opening up a drawer, Joe reached in and pulled out a long, folded rectangular piece of paper that resembled a paycheck.

“Joe, I already received my paycheck today,” Kevin said.

“I know,” Joe replied, quietly. “This is your severance check.”

For what seemed like 10 minutes neither spoke. Kevin didn’t know what to say, and Joe twitched in his chair and constantly refolded his hands as he waited for Kevin to talk.

“I’m being fired?” Kevin finally asked, his voice hoarse. It was the fourth time in two years he’d lost a newspaper job, each time to a layoff.

“No. Laid off. We’re making cutbacks, and since you’ve been here the shortest, they’re letting you go. With two weeks of severance.”

“But…I thought I did a good job. In the six months I’ve been here, I’ve only had one error in my reporting and I get calls from people all the time saying they like my work.”

Joe nodded. “I know, Kevin, and I fought like hell to keep you here. It’s a corporate decision.” He paused and sighed again. “This stays between us. Got it?”

“Yes.”

“Truth is, Kevin,” Joe said, still glancing at the walls, the door and at Kevin’s folded hands, “the company has this bullshit new business model where they save money by getting rid of higher-priced help and bringing in younger, cheaper talent. They’re looking to hire some kid straight out of college who will work for about five dollars an hour cheaper than what you will. I’ve seen this kid’s work, and, frankly, he can’t write worth shit.”

Later that day, at home waiting for his wife to get back from her part-time sales job, Kevin sifted through websites of institutes with medical professional careers like pharmacy assistant, front office assistant and x-ray technician. They paid great and, unlike journalism, they were stable and in demand.

 

Journalism’s dead, Kevin thought, knowing from now on his writing career would consist of blogging.

Copyright 2009 Richard Zowie. All rights reserved. May not be republished without the author’s permission.

Richard Zowie has several blogs. Send comments to richardzowie@gmail.com.

Telling stories versus recycling old ideas

One of my great pleasures in life is to use e-mail to pick the brains of people who’ve spent decades in industries of interest to me and learn what I can from them.

One example in the movie industry is Gary Kent, a gentleman who’s had quite a long-ranging acting career. He’s been an actor, writer, producer, director, worked in stunts and many other facets of filmmaking. In his movies, I’ve seen Gary in one movie in particular, the 1973 film Let’s Play Dead. The title Let’s Play Dead and the cover showing an unseen man taking a hatchet to a playhouse seemed very creepy.

Here’s a brief synopsis of the film that I remember from watching it years ago: A woman suffers a car breakdown and looks for help. She encounters two brothers (Gary played the older brother and his friend John Parker played the younger brother), and before long they kidnap her and put her into a room with two other women. One of them’s been there for months. The two men terrorize the women, and we learn the men have a major mother issue straight out of a Sigmund Freud session.

The police finally start investigating, find the two women (the other died) and come to the house where “Mom” is. In an oddly-strained voice, she tries to tell them nothing’s awry. Well, they don’t buy that and enter the house. The movie ends with Gary’s character dead by suicide and John crying.

Where’s “Mom”? She’s a corpse in the master bedroom and apparently has been dead for years.

This movie sticks out in my mind even today, when you consider how many cookie-cutter suspense/thriller/horror films are out there. You know the basic formula: deranged killer escapes from custody and goes on a horror rampage. And, yes, something at the end will strongly suggest a sequel. It’s a formula that’s been done again and again and again and again. Sometimes it gets so cheesy that what was supposed to be a horror film (Jack Frost–the serial killer who becomes a murdering snowman–not the Michael Keaton movie) evolves more into an unintentional comedy. The human imagination is a wonderful, powerful thing, but yet it seems too much like it’s limited.

A few weeks ago, I e-mailed Gary and asked him how Let’s Play Dead came about. He confirmed that what was said on Internet Movie Database was true: the film’s writer, Don Jones (who also directed) was intrigued by a news report out of Los Angeles where a car was found abandoned on the shoulder of Interstate-5 (which runs from the U.S./Mexican border to the U.S./Canadian border). The female driver was never found. They wondered what may have happened to that driver and took the story from there.

Gary added that he and John based their brother characters loosely on people they’ve known or read about.. This reminds me of Edwin Neal, who played the Hitchhiker in Texas Chainsaw Massacre and said in an interview that when he read the script, the hitchhiker reminded him of a crazy relative; he performed his audition like the relative and was cast.

Asking “what if?” and creating a movie is a formula used for dark works of fiction also:

What if a Catholic school was run by a secret society of its male students? (The Chocolate War)

What if a cocky adolescent kid discovered a paper route customer was a fugitive Nazi and decided to blackmail him–only to have the Nazi turn the tables on him? (Apt Pupil)

What if a couple having marital problems ends up in a deserted Nebraska town run by a dangerous religious cult? (Children of the Corn)

And from one of my all-time favorite films:

What if a crew of space explorers are tricked by their employer into picking up a hostile alien lifeform that starts killing them one by one? (Alien)

I’ve never written by a screenplay, but I have to think great movies–especially suspenseful ones–come when we ask “what if” and let our imaginations take over.

Journalism today and possibly tomorrow

I recently had lunch with a colleague. I use the term “colleague” loosely since this gent has accomplished far more in the journalism world than what I have (or probably ever will have). As we ate, we discussed a few things about our industry.

Some newspapers are very reluctant to web-publish their stories. Their reasoning is readers will start to ask, “Why should I spend x amount of money on the print edition when I can read the online issue for free?” While it’s important to maintain a presence on the web, perhaps a compromise is to “tease” articles every week and let the online readers know they can read the rest of the story if they buy the print issue. Or perhaps they can read the rest of the story if they become an online subscriber. (This would work great for residents in another state or country who still want to keep up with what’s going on).

Writer’s Digest My Story #20: Journalism is Dead

This is the 1,200-word or so version of the 730-ish version I sent to Writer’s Digest. In a few weeks, I’ll post the shorter one.

Journalism is Dead

By Richard Zowie

Kevin Ballard loved his job.

For the past six months he’d worked as a reporter for the Los Patos Star, a weekly publication in Los Patos, Texas (a town of about 15,000 and an hour’s drive south of San Antonio). Kevin carried two beats: the local schools and their sporting activities. That meant sitting in on school board meetings, talking to teachers, students and coaches and digging to discover what happens behind the scenes. Armed with his digital audio recorder, pens, notebook and modest digital camera (the paper was too small to afford the thousands of dollars needed to buy a camera that took great pictures that would’ve made Annie Leibovitz widen her eyes in professional admiration), Kevin did his best to write 10 or so stories a week. Sometimes he even got to write a column.

At first, he was nervous. Kevin wasn’t from Los Patos, and it was one of those Lone Star State towns where most of the longtime locals’ families went back not only to before the Civil War but even before 1836, when Texas gained its independence from Mexico. It could take years, if ever, for an outsider to gain trust and respect. Especially if it was someone like Kevin, who had subtly tried to shake his Michigan accent by changing his pronuncation of vowels, going from saying byalance to balance. When he wrote, he made sure he did so fairly and accurately. He always got both sides of the story.

There was that tense moment when the Los Patos School Board held an issue of teaching both evolution and intelligent design in the classroom. Representatives of the Texas State Board of Education were against it, as was the lawyer of the ACLU threatening lawsuit. Many parents and, of course, the local Christian clergy, supported it. The science teachers at the high school, the ones who would speak on the record, told Kevin they did not support the measure. The others supported it but wanted nothing to do with the debate, fearing it would cost them their jobs.

Wanting an intelligent design quote from a professional instead of just parents and clergy and pushing against the demands of his editor Joseph (who loved H.L. Mencken and the endless muckraking he did during the 1925 Scopes Trial), Kevin found a science professor at the local college, the University of South Texas, who was a proponent of intelligent design. Dr. Ellington, who always wore a white lab coat even when eating breakfast tacos in his office, flatly told Kevin that in his field of neurology, he couldn’t understand how anyone could blindly swallow Darwinism and believe the human body evolved out of “pure, dumb luck.”

Another Dr. Ellington quote became the article’s secondary headline: “‘The human body screams of intelligent design’, local science professor says.”

Kevin expected the worst, wondering what the editor and the public would say. When the calls came in, he was surprised. For the most part, even the state board rep and the ACLU lawyer thanked him for being impartial in his reporting.

That had been three months ago, and Kevin was preparing to send that story to the Texas Press Assocation in hopes of winning a prize that would look great on his resume.

At 3 p.m., he returned back to the Star office after having spent much of the day at the high school. A math teacher was resigning to open his own engineering firm, the football team’s star quarterback was about to break the town’s heart by signing a letter of intent with the University of Oklahoma and two sources told Kevin the high school was planning to start teaching Mandarin Chinese to go with its Spanish and German classes. Many parents, especially those who despise “Made in China” products, will not be happy, they warned him.

He sat, ready to scribe his notes and then call it a day when Joseph, the editor, called him into his office.

Kevin sat in the editor’s office and noticed Joseph closed the door, something he didn’t do unless there was something very private to be discussed.

Joseph sighed deeply and sat in his chair. Kevin could never tell what color Joe’s eyes were because Joe always had a strange habit of never making eye contact. He especially seemed evasive now, glancing at his desk, at the ceiling and at Kevin’s breast pocket. Opening up a drawer, Joe reached in and pulled out a long, folded rectangular piece of paper.

“Joe, I already received my paycheck today,” Kevin said.

“I know,” Joe replied, quietly. “This is your severance check.”

For what seemed like 10 minutes neither spoke. Kevin didn’t know what to say, and Joe twitched in his chair and constantly refolded his hands as he waited for Kevin to talk.

“I’m being fired?” Kevin finally asked, his voice hoarse. He’d already been laid off from four newspapers in the past two years .

“No. Laid off. We’re having to make cutbacks, and since you’ve been here the shortest, they’re letting you go. With two weeks of severance.”

“But…I thought I did a good job. In the six months I’ve been here, I’ve only had one error in my reporting and I get calls from people all the time saying they like my work.”

Joe nodded. “I know, Kevin, and I fought like hell to keep you here. I don’t like this either.” He paused and sighed again. “What I’m about to tell you stays between us. If you tell anyone I said it, I’ll deny it and won’t give you a letter of recommendation for your next job. Got it?”

“Yes.”

“Truth is, Kevin,” Joe said, still glancing at the walls, the door and at Kevin’s folded hands, “the company has this bullshit new business model where they save money by getting rid of higher-priced help and bringing in younger, cheaper talent. They’re looking to hire some kid straight out of college who will work for about five dollars an hour cheaper than what you will. I’ve seen this kid’s work, and, to be honest, he can’t write worth shit.”

Kevin Ballard cleaned out his desk, deleted any unnecessary files, e-mailed his best photos and stories to a private e-mail account and drove home. Before he left the driveway of the newspaper, he called his wife and told her the news. She sounded too shocked to be angry. He deposited the check and drove, wondering how they’d pay the rent, their utilities and where the next job would come from. He’d been laid off three times in the past five years, all for the same reason: cutbacks.

Half an hour later, when he arrived home, he expected his wife to give him a hug and tell him everything was going to be fine, as she’d done before. This time, she handed him a sheet of paper that contained the names of institutes with medical professional careers like pharmacy assistant, front office assistant and x-ray technician.

“All of these jobs pay great, and the medical field’s in high demand,” Sarah told her husband. “Sweetie, I know you love to write, but let’s face it: journalism’s dead. We can’t live like this anymore.”

As Kevin called, he knew his writing career for the time being would consist of one thing: blogging.

Writer’s Digest Contest #20 update

The deadline’s tomorrow, and I’ll have to write up something tonight. The assignment is to write about the first day of your last job or the last day of your first job.

My first job was working at college, first in maintenance, briefly in the distribution center and then a few jobs in food service (line running, dishwashing, painting, vacuuming and baking). Does “last job” mean your current job or prior one?

So, I’ll probably two versions. I had actually written them, but the computer’s in storage. Things have been slowed down since we’re in the middle of moving.

Once I write the two versions, I’ll send the better one in and post the lesser one here.